The following article has been published in J-Wire.
May 17, 2019
Bob Hawke was one of the giants of Australian public life.
Both as a trade unionist and a political leader, he was a moderniser and a reformer who combined hard-headed pragmatism with deep emotional conviction. He had a unique talent to find common ground between parties in conflict, and to persuade them that it was in their own long-term interests to make compromises that promoted the common good.
Hawke instinctively abhorred racism and bigotry of all kinds, and would not hesitate to call them out, regardless of the political consequences. He had a natural empathy with people of all backgrounds.
From the time that Bob Hawke first visited Israel in 1971, accompanied by his daughter Sue, he became a passionate advocate of its right to live in peace, to grow and develop, and to realise its full potential. He saw this as a vital interest of the democratic world, and famously observed, “If the bell tolls for Israel, it tolls for all of us”.
Hawke’s commitment was so deep that he even clashed with Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam when the latter bowed to the pressure of Arab states which had raised oil process after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Whitlam announced that Australia would henceforth adopt an “even-handed” policy towards Israel and the Arabs, a substantial shift from the support for Israel previous Australian governments had shown. Hawke was appalled by what he referred to as Whitlam’s “immoral, unethical and ungrateful” view of Israel.
As Australia’s Prime Minister between 1983 and 1991, Hawke brushed aside bureaucratic resistance from within the Department of Foreign Affairs to throw Australia’s support behind the international campaign for the right to emigrate of Jewish Refuseniks in the former Soviet Union. The campaign was led by the Australian Jewish community, most notably by Isi Leibler as President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and gave tremendous heart to persecuted Soviet Jews, a key factor in the ultimate success of the campaign. Hawke’s energetic efforts on their behalf reportedly led the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to plan to assassinate him.
Bob Hawke introduced legislation to enable the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in Australia and established a Special Investigations Unit to gather the necessary evidence.
He also directed Australia to support international diplomatic efforts that ultimately led to the rescission in 1991 of the infamous UN General Assembly Resolution sixteen years earlier that had equated Zionism with racism.
In February 1987 Hawke visited Israel, the first serving Australian Prime Minister to do so. Thereafter, Hawke’s rhetoric about Israel underwent a gradual change. Whilst maintaining a strong commitment to Israel’s rights, he began also to express sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and for the view that unless Israel reached a compromise with the Palestinians, it would face the long-term demographic nightmare of ruling over more Arabs than Jews.
Towards the end of his life, Hawke became more outspoken in criticising Israeli governments and supporting the establishment and recognition of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet he never descended into the kind of crude polemics that have characterised the turn away from Israel of his Labor colleague, Bob Carr.
In February 2017 Hawke wrote, “I am well known as a long-time supporter of the right of Israel to exist as a state behind secure and recognised borders – nothing has changed in that respect. What has changed is the sentiment of Israeli political leadership”.
Bob Hawke was a conciliator to the end. His flaw perhaps was to think that the basic decencies of life in Australia, which formed the necessary underpinnings to his successful resolution of so many disputes in this country, can be harnessed to resolve all international conflicts. The world is poorer for the fact that that it is manifestly not the case, and for the passing of a leader who encapsulated those decencies in his own character and vision for a better future.
Bob Hawke 1929-2019
Peter Wertheim is the co-CEO of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry.